Freedom of Speech Research Paper

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Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that can be defended on consequentialist and deontological grounds. Free speech in bioethics has been under threat for 50 years and is perhaps more vulnerable since the millennium due to the new rhetoric of intolerance and new laws suppressing speech. Nevertheless, it is evident that free speech is a necessity for the proper conduct of bioethics, especially given the ethical challenges that the global diffusion of biotechnology has brought and will continue to bring. That necessity can be defended on the very same grounds that the general liberty can be defended.


Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that can be defended on consequentialist and deontological grounds. Free speech in bioethics has been under threat for 50 years and is perhaps more vulnerable since the millennium due to the new rhetoric of intolerance and new laws suppressing speech. Nevertheless, it is evident that free speech is a necessity for the proper conduct of bioethics, especially given the ethical challenges that the global diffusion of biotechnology has brought and will continue to bring. That necessity can be defended on the very same grounds that the general liberty can be defended.

Conceptual Clarification

Freedom of speech is a liberty possessed by the individual and exercised by him both individually and corporately. Speech is not confined to verbal utterance but must be understood to include all modes of human communication that may convey ideas. Freedom must be understood as the right to speak one’s mind without external interference, constraint, or coercion, a freedom that imposes a correlate duty on others to tolerate such speaking and to refrain from interference, constraint, or coercion.

The extent of this freedom remains controversial. Classical liberals from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and perhaps Scanlon have excluded only defamation, threats, incitement and conspiracy to theft, rapine and violence, and communication of secrets to an enemy or foreign power. Conservatives, progressives, and socialists, by contrast, have drawn the extent narrowly and imposed intolerance for speech they regard as obstructing the ends they wish to promote, as expressing views they find immoral or as based in objectionable attitudes such as hatred.

Although much debate on this topic confines itself to the freedom from governmental and legal interference, it is a mistake to think that the right is only a political right that imposes a duty only on governments. Rather, it is a fundamental possession of the individual, and as such it is a moral right that imposes correlate duties on all others. So the attempt to shut people up by social pressure, by shouting down, by disruption, and by violence is no less a transgression of this right than when governments shut people up by law or naked force.

Defending Free Speech

The defense of the freedom of speech has been given from both consequentialist and deontological normative theories. Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill (Mill 1859/1975) tend to focus on the benefits that flow from free speech and the contribution it makes to increasing our knowledge and subjecting our beliefs to the test of criticism. Mill was particularly concerned with the danger of dead dogma and of our tendency to adhere blindly to unchallenged beliefs through ignorance of the reasons for and against them. The widest possible freedom of opinion was needed to protect us from this danger and hence the necessity for the widest possible freedom of speech. The only constraint on liberty that Mill recognized was where it was necessary to prevent harm to others (his harm principle, although whether this principle fits well with his utilitarianism is controversial). Apart from the standard cases of threats, incitement to violence, and defamation, Mill did not accept that speech harmed, even if it may on occasion hurt. This requirement of toleration may be contrasted with a consequentialist critique of it from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent. (Holmes 1919)

Deontological defenses of free speech have been grounded in the value of the autonomy, self-possession, and self-expression of the individual. Timothy Scanlon, for example (Scanlon 1972), defended free speech on the grounds of its intrinsic value. Scanlon allows a more expansive conception of harm from speech than Mill did, for example, accepting that coming to have false beliefs counts as a harm. Despite such harms that may flow from free speech, it is nevertheless wrong to suppress it because it is valuable independently of other ends to which it may or may not be instrumental. The nature of its value is the value of the autonomy of the individual and the partial constitution of that autonomy by free access to the information needed to decide what to believe and do. Suppression (especially by the government, the legal right being Scanlon’s main concern) prevents individuals from regarding themselves as fully autonomous. They may be prevented from hearing relevant information by restrictions that are intended to coerce their judgment down lines desired by the person imposing the restriction. If they know there are restrictions, in being deprived of they know not what, they cannot know whether their judgment is based on the relevant information or is being steered. Consequently, they cannot regard their judgment as autonomous. If they do not know there are restrictions, they may think their judgment is autonomous, but they are living in illusion and are thereby not autonomous.

What is characteristic of Scanlon’s defense is that it rests on the right of the recipient of the speech rather than the right of the speaker. Effectively, this defense is not so much a defense of a right of free speech as an imposition of a duty to speak freely and to tolerate that speech for the sake of the recipient of that speech.

Three different and quite direct arguments can be given for the right of the speaker himself and the correlate imposition on others of the duty to tolerate. The first is based on its necessity for our self-possession: “Without freedom of speech we have no freedom of thought and without freedom of thought we do not have ourselves” (Shackel 2013a, p. 316). The second argument may be given on the necessity of freedom of thought for our autonomy: we cannot exercise our self-governance without the free exercise of our judgment. The crucial step in both these arguments is that the freedom of thought requires freedom of speech. This is evident both from the necessity of talking things over with others to get clear what we really do think and the benefit we gain in subjecting our thoughts to the scrutiny of others in discussion and debate. If we are not allowed to explore our thoughts without saying the wrong thing resulting in legal penalty or social anathema, we will keep quiet out of fear. Our thoughts will not be freely held, but, if contrary to fashion, conventional opinion or dogma, will be a threat to our self and lead us from external suppression to internal suppression and confusion. This last point takes us to the third argument based on self-expression. In order to inhabit the world in a flourishing manner, we cannot conceal ourselves but must display our character and allow ourselves to be known by others. We cannot be known if we must suppress our opinions out of fear of penalty or anathema, and hence we must be able to speak freely.

Threat To Free Speech

Unfortunately, since the turn of the millennium, there has been a retreat from freedom of speech. In place of the robust entrenchment of this freedom in custom, practice, and law, there are systematic attempts at suppressing the free expression of opinion. A dynamic first identified by Bruce Yandle has taken hold, a dynamic which he named bootleggers and Baptists (Yandle 1983). Yandle pointed out that while the prohibition of alcohol in the USA early in the twentieth century was established by those, the Baptists, claiming a high moral purpose, the bootleggers were no less in favor of that law and were its chief beneficiaries. The bootleggers required the law in order that they should flourish and they knew it. Consequently, the law of the high-minded actually established the power of organized crime in the USA. We see this dynamic continuing today, and doing so internationally, with the laws prohibiting drugs.

We can see the same taking hold in the case of freedom of speech. A high-minded concern for the evils of hate speech (Waldron 2012), a feature of cultural artifacts of many kinds, has led to thought-crime laws whose real effects have been to suppress the criticism of various cultural and political shibboleths, such as the fatuous prosecution of Maclean’s magazine in Canada ( The bootleggers in this story are those who, without these laws, would be confined to the kind of rhetorical trickery that philosophers have traditionally exposed (see Flew 1991; Shackel 2013b, 2005; Thouless and Thouless 2011) but who, with these laws in place, are given the camouflage to effect a heckler’s veto and to attempt to anathematize those with whom they disagree, thereby suppressing criticism of their beliefs and acts.

Threat To Free Speech In Bioethics

From the 1960s, there has been no shortage of this dynamic in bioethics. Controversial philosophical views on abortion and disability have created outrage outrage which has recently latched onto the rhetoric of hate speech. Peter Singer has, for example, been frequently subjected to campaigns that seek not to engage with his argument nor to put forward an alternative opinion but rather to suppress any expression of what he wishes to say and to anathematize him. One such campaign was conducted in Germany in 1989–1990. Protesters in Germany were able to force a university course on his work to be abandoned, symposia and lectures were shut down, and he was condemned a Nazi (Singer 2001, p. 303).

A more recent manifestation of this phenomenon was the response to a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics on infanticide (Giubilini and Minerva 2013). There is no doubt that this is a highly controversial topic and something over which we might consider it to be right to have in place some degree of taboo, since there are sacred values in play (Tetlock 2003). Nevertheless, abortion is practiced, and many moral philosophers are convinced that there is no essential moral difference between a very late-term abortion and infanticide. Consequently, it is a topic that needs to be addressed at length and in depth. Instead, the authors were subjected to abuse and death threats, and once again, there was an attempt to suppress the article itself and to anathematize the authors (Savulescu 2013; Shackel 2013a).

Significance In Bioethics

Radical advances in medicine have given rise to the many and varied ethical questions that have been the mainstay of bioethics for the last 50 years. The possibilities for manipulating our bodies and our biology promised and fulfilled by scientific research have often posed deep challenges to our self-image and to our views of the human good. It is rarely a simple thing to know whether we should do what we can do. If the heart is the seat of the soul, what are you doing when transplanting a heart, and should you do it? That particular question looks unproblematic from our modern perspective. More troublesome questions have arisen over abortion, bodily integrity, markets for organs, severely impaired lives, resuscitation, and end-of-life care. Looming possibilities of human biological enhancement are rapidly bringing entirely new questions into view. To address the ethical challenges of bioethics has frequently in the past and will continue in the future to require us entering into areas ruled out of bounds not only by fashion, conventional opinion, and dogma but also by the substance of our various purity ethics (Haidt and Joseph 2004), which is to say, ruled out by taboo. To speak of what is held outside these bounds requires a cultural acceptance of the fundamental liberty of the freedom of speech.

In recent years, we have become more aware of the great importance of cultural factors in the successful adoption of technologies. Previous assumptions of the extent to which a technology can be imported as simply as a car or a tractor have proven to be naïve. Understanding of a technology must be integrated with the broader understanding and values of a culture before it can become a successful contribution to the life of that culture. Such understanding requires an extensive, prolonged, and informed discourse within and by the culture itself. For there to be such a discourse requires that such a discourse on such a topic be permitted. Along with many other currents in globalization, the reach of ever greater portions of modern medicine and biotechnology has extended globally. These, too, are technologies whose successful contribution to the life of the cultures of the world requires an extensive, prolonged, and informed discourse within and by the culture itself.


The particular significance of freedom of speech in global bioethics is twofold: it is necessary for us to address new ethical challenges despite the dogmas and taboos that surround them, and it is necessary for bringing about the global good that can be done with new biological technologies. Those are both, on their face, consequentialist reasons for free speech in global bioethics. It is not hard, however, to see that the same facts give reasons based in autonomy, self-possession, and self-assertion. Bioethical questions and opportunities confront us all, not just in the abstract but increasingly in the lives of ourselves and our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and nations, a network which links us by only six degrees of separation to everyone on the planet. If we are deprived of hearing free discussion in bioethics, we are knowingly deprived of the moral information that allows us to see ourselves as autonomous in deciding what to believe and do about such questions and opportunities. If we are deprived of speaking freely on them, we are deprived of the opportunity to think freely about them and to manifest how they strike us with the attitudes and character that we have. Consequently, the grounds of all standard arguments for freedom of speech are grounds for its necessity in global bioethics.

Bibliography :

  1. Flew, A. (1991). Thinking about social thinking. London: Fontana.
  2. Giubilini, A., & Minerva, F. (2013). After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(5), 261–263.
  3. Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55–66.
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  6. Savulescu, J. (2013). Abortion, infanticide and allowing babies to die, 40 years on. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(5), 257–259.
  7. Scanlon, T. (1972). A theory of free expression. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, 204–226.
  8. Shackel, N. (2005). The vacuity of postmodernist method- ology. Metaphilosophy, 36(3), 295–320.
  9. Shackel, N. (2013a). The fragility of freedom of speech. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(5), 316.
  10. Shackel, N. (2013b). Pseudoscience and idiosyncratic theories of rational belief. In M. Pigliucci & M. Boudry (Eds.), The philosophy of pseudoscience. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  11. Singer, P. (2001). On being silenced in Germany. In Writings on an ethical life. London: Fourth Estate.
  12. Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(7), 320–324.
  13. Thouless, R. H., & Thouless, C. R. (2011). Straight and crooked thinking (4th ed.). London: Hodder and Stoughton.
  14. Waldron, J. (2012). The harm in hate speech. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  15. Yandle, B. (1983). Bootleggers and baptists: The education of a regulatory economist. Regulation, 7(3), 12–16.
  16. Haworth, A. (1998). Free speech. London: Routledge.
  17. Hume, M. (2015). Trigger warning: Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech? London: William Collins.

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